Bob Dylan used to make the rare appearance on David Letterman’s late-night shows, but it’s Jimmy Fallon who just gave the enigmatic singer-songwriter a new lease on pop-culture relevance.
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” held forth Sunday night in the Orpheum in Minneapolis, part of a live broadcast that took place after NBC’s Super Bowl LII. Dylan owned the theater for a stretch in the 80s and Fallon wanted to do an homage to the 60s-era singer-songwriter for the 2018 crowd. He had an impression nailed down (He’s done Dylan on “Tonight” in the past). His “Tonight Show” crew has great make-up and costume people. All he needed was a song.
That’s where Mike DiCenzo came in.
DiCenzo, a “Tonight Show” showrunner and producer who has been with Fallon since his days as host of NBC’s “Late Night,” said the show’s staff began discussing the theater’s Dylan connection in December, and he started working on an updated version of the singer’s 1964 classic “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
“The message of the original song still kind of makes sense,” says DiCenzo, who confesses to being a Dylan aficionado. “I just updated it with more specific references to all the stuff that’s been going on.”
The result has been striking. DiCenzo’s update is filled with nods to things the 1960s Dylan could only imagine: fake news, smartphones, hashtags, Internet trolls and a “failing” New York Times. The first stanza, for example, contained the following lyrics:
Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that our country don’t feel like our home
And that silence speaks louder than those who condone
If a tweet to you is worth favin’
Then lift up your voices and put down your phones
For the times they are a-changin’
Trying to update Dylan might strike some as a daunting task, but DiCenzo says he must have – as Dylan has often claimed to do – tapped into some “creative wellspring.” Once he started to think about the idea, DiCenzo says, “it just poured out of me.” Fallon had a copy of the song in December, and DiCenzo updated it in January to include references to the “Time’s Up” movement and Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” book.
“I’ve seen pretty overwhelmingly positive reaction on Twitter and Facebook, which is rare,” says DiCenzo. “I was proud of it and I was happy it seemed to connect with people.”
In an era when many late-night programs have ratcheted up their political commentary, “Tonight” has tried to stay true to the ethos that Fallon gave it when he took over from Jay Leno in February of 2014. The show is supposed to be a fun place to hang out late at night, and the games Fallon plays with celebrities have lent the venerable program – on the air since Steve Allen launched it in 1957 – a new dimension.
DiCenzo doesn’t see the Dylan tune as marking the start of a new politically aware era for the show. “I don’t think it’s funny,” he said of the song. “But I also don’t see it as political.” Yes, the new lyrics nod to an era in which people are grappling with sexual harassment and human rights and First Amendment issues, but “in the same way that the original is just kind of more about ‘there are movements going on,’ this is addressing them. It’s just an update , really.”
Fans and viewers appreciated the effort, but one person has yet to weigh in. DiCenzo says no one at “Tonight” has heard a word from Bob Dylan or his representatives.